#105 Podcast: Helping Students Navigate their Online Education Journey
This content first appeared at APUEdge.Com.
Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. Hansen, Department Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. Jan Spencer, Department Chair, School of Arts, Humanities and Education and
Dr. David Ferreira, Faculty Member, APU and Provost, Charter Oak State College
The pandemic caused the greatest disruption to higher education in the past 150 years. Helping students navigate these changes—including the shift to online education for many—is a major challenge for both student affairs’ professionals and teachers. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and Dr. Jan Spencer talk to Dr. David Ferreira, an APU faculty member and provost at a community college. Learn how institutions of higher education must be ready for their students, how faculty can help students during their online education journey, and why mental health must be front and center for students and faculty alike.
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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun! Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen. And I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.
Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. Thank you for being with us today. We are just around 100 episodes of this podcast. That means we’ve been with you almost two years, helping you learn more about online education and think about your students and your online work.
We have some special guests with us today, and I’d like to introduce Dr. Jan Spencer and Dr. Dave Ferreira. Jan, would you tell us a little bit about you just to refresh our listeners and then we’ll go to your guest.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Thank you, Bethanie. It is always a privilege to talk with you and being a part of this podcast. I am the Department Chair for Educational Leadership and Student Life, which incorporates three different programs, the Educational Leadership piece of K-12 Education, and then two higher education programs, one in Student Affairs and one in Higher Education Administration.
And it’s really a real blessing to me to have my guest here, Dr. Dave Ferreira, who is newer to us at APU, but he is very much of an asset to our program, particularly in student affairs. Dave, tell us a little bit about yourself and where your main job is and anything else you want to throw in there?
Dr. David Ferreira: Well, thank you Dr. Spencer and Bethanie. Great to be here and thank you for having me. So, currently, actually, I’m the Provost at Charter Oak State College, which is Connecticut’s public online state college. And I’ve been in this role for just over six months.
Prior to that time, I was the Dean of Academic and Student Affairs at Northwestern Connecticut Community College. And so I’ve been in the Connecticut system. In addition, as you mentioned to working with APU as an adjunct faculty member over in student affairs and higher education. And it’s a really great role. I love doing that because we get to work with, and mentor, and teach the next generation of higher education leaders in particular over in student affairs.
So I’ve been in higher ed now for, I would say it’s actually approaching 20 years. And so, it’s really great because so much has changed over in higher education. And now, more than ever, we actually are taking a look at that type of holistic approach with students and just ways to work on retention and graduation, but also doing so with an equity lens. So I would actually argue there are a lot of challenges, but there is no better time to be in higher education than today.
Dr. Jan Spencer: That’s great. It is a changing world of student affairs and online education. And as your role has changed where you are now a provost of an online college, it is very much of an interest to us to see from your perspective, the kinds of things that are changing, just as your role changed. So, I think the different opportunities for people to work in higher education, particularly in the online space, are opening wide up and there’s challenge there, there’s opportunities there. Give us your perspective.
Dr. David Ferreira: I think that with the pandemic, obviously, nobody ever wanted to have a pandemic come to us, but it has. What I kind of tell my team, because as the role of the provost, I’m the chief academic affairs officer, I’m the chief student affairs officer, and I’m also the chief diversity officer of the college. So, I actually kind of three roles in one.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Not bottle washer, right?
Dr. David Ferreira: Yeah. No. But part-time. Other duties is assigned. And so what I’ve actually told my team, because actually we’re in the midst of actually starting up our new strategic plan to take us for the next five years, is we’re in the middle of the greatest disruption to higher education in the past 150 years. Been nothing greater of a disruption since the industrial revolution. So as we create our new plans, no pressure, right? And so I think what we have really found through the pandemic, we really highlighted a couple of things.
First, is that students were forced to go online really quickly. Over a matter of a week, I was the dean of academic and student affairs at Northwestern Connecticut Community College when that happened and we worked really quick to try to do the best experience online.
And for some students, it really wasn’t for them. They learned that, “Hey, I really need to be face to face or I need to be face to face for particular classes.” But, for others, they were kind of into this forced way in which they like, “Hey, I can work at 11 o’clock at night in my pajamas after the kids go to bed. And so this actually allows me the access and the ability to do so.”
Or in particular where I came from previously, I was in a rural area and transportation is a huge issue. So by just being able to have access to reliable Wi-Fi, I am able to actually access higher education or I’m able to access more classes so I can actually complete quicker.
And so, I think that is something really radical. So, what we’re going to see now on Charter Oaks and over at APU is that this is an option that they never considered before. And so, how do we actually then reach out to those students who are those students where when they were forced to go to online education, that it actually is working out for them? How do we identify them and actually go ahead and say, let’s go ahead and be your provider.
The other thing that I think the pandemic really highlighted is a focus on the holistic approach to the student and also mental health. Unfortunately, through the pandemic, mental health has really become a gargantuan issue, in particular, with our adult students that come over to college for online education. And so, I think as a college we’ve learned, we simply need to go ahead and need to make investments in mental health for our students in order to be able to best serve them because it is actually I think a moral imperative issue that we do so.
Dr. Jan Spencer: That was a tremendously insightful answer. And I do appreciate your wisdom in seeing the different kinds of challenges that students are facing with this forced-on technology that some of them never planned on.
At the same time, for those who have intentionally chosen online education from the start, there are some challenges in learning about student affairs, learning to practice student affairs on higher education administration because of the online factor. Can you address some of the ways that you can see students and institutions overcoming the challenges of trying to be personal with people and really help them along, but still maintain that distance? Because that’s what it is.
Dr. David Ferreira: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that there’s a number of approaches we can take to try to be very personable with this. First is, use of technology. Even before the pandemic, we’re with our online students, how many of us actually made it possible to do things via Zoom, or Webex, or Teams or whatever it could be? Because there is a way where you can give personalized assistance using technology.
For example, before the pandemic, we probably did things primarily over phone or email. However, doing synchronous sessions to help them actually, for example, with students, with the onboard process, we can share the screen, teach them how to go through the application process, how to log into the learn and management system that they have at their respective institution to log in for the first time. Because that’s a big issue. If you’re coming to an online college and you haven’t taken an online class even in a couple years, just simply, how do I get to my course? Remember in a traditional university, where’s my classroom?
And you used to have to go around to the map, ask people where’s this hall, right? That’s the same thing in an online environment. We need to say, how do we take that and actually apply it over here. So things of utilizing technology to help students onboard and produce the most personalized experience.
Likewise, another thing that we really have learned and putting a focus on in particular in the upcoming semesters is about that outreach to the student and particularly, our new students within the first two weeks. How is their experience? How are they coming on board? Do they know about the resources available to them? Whether it be tutoring, the library, if they are struggling with anything from a mental health or short-term financial need. We need to make sure that we’re doing that personalized upfront outreach so that we can connect them to the resources because it is much more difficult to find those resources.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Yes. Bethanie, will you have something to add into this?
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Well, a question really, Dave has me thinking because when he’s talking about walking the student around campus, like what we used to do when things were “normal” and live, I’m just thinking with this online stuff and whether you’re doing it synchronously or asynchronously, everybody is in such a different place with that, right? Some are digital natives, some are just totally lost. And I’m wondering how faculty could help with that?
Dr. David Ferreira: I think there’s a couple of things that faculty can do, really. One, and we’re working on this too with our faculty, which is, depending where the student is in their online education journey. So I say, if you’re into a first semester gateway course, and it’s the first week or two of the semester, there’s an expectation that you give a little bit more grace to the student than you would, who maybe is in a capstone course in their final semester. They’ve already been through it, they’ve kind of gone through the process, they know where to look for things.
So I think we have to ask our faculty, where are the students in their educational journey? And in my mind there’s always two types of colleges or universities. There’s the first type of college or university who says, “Oh, only if I had these students. Are the students ready for our college or our university?”
And I think we’re not that. Our college and university is, is our college ready for our students? And it’s a change of mindset in order to actually go ahead and it’s a change of culture. And I think we really need to make sure are we doing our professional development for our faculty, our orientation for our faculty? Just like we ask, how do we onboard our students? Well, how do we onboard our faculty and our staff to actually say, this is our culture? Our culture is how can we prepare our college or university for our students, not the other way around and to then look at policies and practices that do so.
And also, I say do so from an equity lens standpoint in particular. And now we’re looking at this right now. Are we infusing culturally responsive teaching within our courses to make sure that also, everyone feels welcome and included and the material is relevant to them? And so, I think that’s there.
And then the last way too is we talk about learning preferences, right? And so, when we do communicate to students, are we communicating in the way that actually appeals to multiple learning preferences? I always ask the question, if you ever buy something from Ikea, right, there’s two types of people. Everything’s sprawled out and they start to try to put things together. There’s the others that read the directions first before they touch anything. Those are just our different learning preferences.
So, when we approach our lessons and the way in which we craft our online courses, are we doing so from a universal design framework as well, where we’re appealing to multiple learning preferences so that if this way doesn’t work for them, they’ll be able to capture and get the information that way. Again, we’re not lowering the standards, we’re providing multiple avenues so that we help the student meet the high outcomes that we have expected of our students.
Dr. Jan Spencer: In your sharing and including equity, diversity, inclusion, one of the spinoffs there is the area of politics. We’ve seen such polarization in our country, in our world for that matter, with regard to politics. How do we deal with the issues, particularly in an online environment where you have students who are thrown in a place together, but they may want to maintain their polarization, so to speak? As a student affairs, professional, highly trained, what are the ways we deal with that? Can you help us with that?
Dr. David Ferreira: Yeah, I wish I had the perfect answer because we are so polarized in this environment, whether we are mandate versus not mandate, mask or no mask, and left versus right, and who won the last election. There’s so many things that are very polarizing out there. And I think it’s providing opportunities for that type of discussion, but you have to make sure we have the framework.
I used to teach American government. And so, we would cover items like abortion, and the death penalty, and burning of the American flag. These things are very hot topics, right? People feel very strongly one way or the other. And so, I think it’s a way in which we approach it, because these are adults.
And so, the way I actually, I approached it upfront is I’d say we’re going to cover some very tough questions, some tough topics. And the only thing I’m going to expect is that we do so in a very respectful manner. When we framed it in that way of saying, this is the expectation, that we’re going to have these tough conversations, but, by the way, I don’t have these issues and I don’t expect to have it now. That sets a, I guess, a tone or a framework that we’re going to go ahead and have it.
But then on the other side, we have to have people see the other side, right? So, if we’re talking about a mask mandate, I would actually have our students look at it from the opposite perspective, right? Because there’s a lot of ways we can look at it. We’re looking at it from schools and school board meetings, making sure that we do so in respectful manner.
So again, I think everything we do, we have to do it by design. And if we do that and have it and teach and encourage, but also have people look at ways through their own opposite, not-lived experience framework, hopefully we can tone down the tenor because we are an institution of higher education and also of good citizenship. So we have to make sure we infuse that within our curriculum.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Excellent. Along with that, you mentioned the crafted situation where you have some outcomes you’re trying to achieve in terms of learning, but also relationship and being able to deal with difficult issues. One of the things is how we become global in our thinking, in our actions. And it puts a much of a greater challenge to an instructor to be able to maybe span the time zones.
So, a greater call to us, at least in my view, is to be willing to be imposed upon. So, if we’re going to have a class and we have a student that needs a conversation with us, instead of making them talk to us at two o’clock in the morning where they are, we’re the ones who need to be willing to be imposed upon. What is your sense of the willingness of instructors to adopt some of the challenges of online education and be willing to change their style to make it work?
Dr. David Ferreira: In the end I think what we have to ask faculty, and, again, I think it all goes back to setting up the expectations of culture. That this is our culture. Our culture is that we are a university that asks ourselves, are we ready for our students? If that’s not something that fits within your personal brand or what you are looking to do, maybe this place is not the place for you. That’s a tough question to ask, right?
But just like when I worked at the community college, there were some people who applied as a faculty member and really they wanted to work at an R1 heavy research university and we need those people. We absolutely need folks over at R1 institutions. We want the best folks at our R1 institutions. That wasn’t who we were as a community college. We were a teaching institution. That was our primary mode. And if that wasn’t your primary passion, maybe it’s not a fit.
But, obviously, you don’t expect a faculty member to be around at two o’clock in the morning, but you should expect a faculty member to say, “Hey, look, I should be able to grant maybe some office hours, but also say, but by appointment and try to work with the student.”
Because, for example, if you’re working with a student in Israel, you shouldn’t expect to have that student meet with you between sundown Friday and sundown on Saturday because they’re practicing Shabbat. That’s just a cultural expectation. And so I think you just want to say, look, there are some parameters, yes, we’re not going to expect you to be there 24/7, but we do expect you to at least be as flexible as you can be so that you can work with the student. And I think you got to have that in writing as well. So therefore it’s very clear that that’s who we are as an institution and that’s what we expect out of you.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Thank you. One of the things you said are earlier, you’ve mentioned, I think at least once, maybe twice the involvement of mental health in student affairs. Can you expand upon that just a little bit? What is the increased role of student affairs with regard to mental health? When we say mental health, what does a student affairs professional look for? How do they help students in issues dealing with mental health?
[Student Affairs: Addressing Student Mental Health and Wellness]
Dr. David Ferreira: A lot of times when we take a look at mental health, one, it is on a huge rise and that’s nobody’s fault. That’s just part of the pandemic. I think studies have shown that between a quarter and a third of our adult student population that’s online, they’re struggling with some type of mental health. And then not to mention their children that are struggling with mental health that are going through their K-12.
So, there’s a couple things that I think we need to do as higher education institutions is one, what do we offer? And so I know at my full-time position where I’m at, we’re actually working to secure a vendor that can provide 24/7 mental health care in a, basically, a telehealth environment. Our students are coming to us via tele. So we need to be able to provide the mental health services in a telehealth environment.
And second thing we have to do is we have to train our staff. What are the signs we need to look for? Again, we don’t need them to be mental health experts, but what are the top two or three little flags or things we need to look for in order to identify or do kind of a little bit of an outreach to them to see how they’re coming along?
And then, as we mentioned here, it also goes to our faculty. Our faculty again, we don’t expect them to be mental health experts, but they’ll be able to see something is different in this discussion post this week compared to last week. Their performance has started to rapidly decline over the past two weeks.
Who do I turn to? One, do they know who do they turn to at the college or university to basically do a checkup? So we need to establish some pieces in place, some processes, a design so to speak to do that. And then at the same time we got to have access to that telehealth type of mental health services. I think it’s really critical. I know over here in the state of Connecticut, the governor has actually allotted some money for colleges and universities to address mental health issues with students. And so my college has allotted a little bit of money to do that.
But even after the pandemic, we need to go do that because this is something I’ve always made a case for. When it came to the federal dollars that have come through the pandemic, not much has actually gone to online institutions and I’ve had to make the case, our students are humans, too. They’re struggling just like any student who’s sitting inside of a classroom. They’re just struggling from behind a laptop. And so we need to make sure that we have equitably distributed those resources to our online students so they can actually receive those types of supports.
Dr. Jan Spencer: Thank you very much. I want to give Bethanie a chance as our hostess to speak into this process as well. Because I think she may have some questions to ask you, Dave.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you, Jan. And thank you Dave, for all the wisdom you’re sharing with us today. I was hearing the question that Jan just asked about the mental health and thinking about faculty. When you say that we need to make investments in mental health, it’s a moral imperative, earlier in this episode, I got to thinking that a faculty member thinking about a student’s mental health might be really concerned about how do I help? How do I support? How do I not cross the line into some area I’m really uncomfortable with or not qualified for? What do you think they could do?
Dr. David Ferreira: Yeah. I always start with professional development. We’re actually doing this in regards to accessibility as well, which is we’re doing a session on here’s the do’s and don’ts. For example, with accessibility, obviously you must give the accommodation that is afforded to the student. But don’t go beyond that. Don’t give them everything because if you give them everything, you have to do that for all students.
So same thing over in mental health. Here’s what’s not expected of you. You’re not expected to sit on the phone for two hours with a student as they go ahead and talk about how their world is crashing, right? Yes. You need to be responsive. You want to listen, but you need to say, “Okay, I’m hearing what you’re saying. And I want to connect you to the best person possible to make sure that we get you the help that’s needed.”
So, it’s the professional development. I would start with the do’s and don’ts. If your college, university is working with a vendor, typically built into the contract is professional development and training for faculty and staff. If not, it’s a little bit of an investment, definitely make that investment. And so I would say start over there. Work with them.
But then also at the same time, provide that professional development session, too. Sometimes it’s actually therapy for the faculty member as well. Because we also have to keep in mind that as our students are struggling through this pandemic from a mental health perspective, our faculty and our staff, they’re also struggling. They’re getting burnt out, they’re mentally drained. And so, I think we also, maybe as administrators or leaders need to also be conscious of that. And also ask ourselves, are we providing the support to our faculty and our staff? Because also when they learn about those resources available to them, they’ll also be better equipped to help with those resources available to our students. And I think that’s really crucial.
And the last thing I would actually mention too, and I think it’s really important to highlight when we talk about health and wellness is that the theme of this year’s Black History Month is health and wellness.
It’s important to make sure we realize that because I think it’s emphasizing where we see, but then also emphasizing too, the historical disproportionate impact on our underrepresented minority communities and particularly, in our Black community that systemically we’ve seen over the years. So, I’m really appreciative for this year’s Black History Month, that we have that emphasis on health and wellness because I really think it brings it to the forefront.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you, Dave. And I appreciate you mentioning the faculty. Sometimes faculty are really hard on themselves, and they don’t realize that all this added strain and stress of what’s been going on in the country or the world really just takes its toll. Sometimes work will take twice as long, or sometimes you’ll just be really unfocused and not sure why.
And it’s just a good reminder that yep, we’re all facing tough things. We need to know what those resources are so we can get through it. We’re just about at the end of our episode here and I’m curious if you have any last takeaways you want to make sure our listeners really get from your message today, Dave.
Dr. David Ferreira: Well, I think the first thing that we want to know, wherever you work in higher education, online’s here, online’s here to stay. And so again, I think for any institution, APU, or where I work over at Charter Oak or anywhere else, this is a rapidly evolving component of higher education. And, again, what are we going to do to make sure that more and more students are going to utilize online either partially or fully? What are we going to do to make sure we’re ready? And I think the biggest thing too is the fundamental question we have to ask is are we nimble enough to make sure that we can quickly adapt? We saw how quick and nimble we can be. In higher education, we don’t move fast, right? We kind of move like the Titanic.
And so we got to be able to say, are we nimble enough to actually make sure we can quickly pivot to best meet the needs of students? It is an imperative because that’s what we’re here for. We’re not here for the paycheck. We’re here to make sure that we actually provide those opportunities because what we do in higher education, fundamentally, at the end of the day, we make them better citizens. But also in a number of cases, we break the cycle of poverty, not only for this generation, but generations to come. There is no better place to be than higher education. And, honestly, with the access and affordability that we provide with online education, there’s nowhere else we’d want to be right now.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Beautiful. And Jan, do you have any final comments?
Dr. Jan Spencer: Well, I just appreciate Dr. Ferreira’s involvement in our program here at APU. He has added a great spark to what we’re doing. Appreciate his input all the time. And particularly now that he has become a provost, he’s going to have a different view yet of what it is that we’re doing here in terms of educating online learners. So, thank you, Bethanie, for helping us take the time to spotlight some of the things that are happening in the world of student affairs and higher education administration.
Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Thank you both for being here. As we close this episode of the Online Teaching Lounge, we want to thank Dr. Jan Spencer, a Department Chair in the School of Arts, Humanities, and Education and Dr. Dave Ferreira, part-time faculty at American Public University and also Provost at Charter Oak State College.
Thank you for being with us today and thanks to you, our listeners for tuning in. Be sure to share this podcast with your colleagues who are working and teaching online. And spread the word about this podcast. Post this episode in your favorite social media space. We want to expand our reach to help you and others who are teaching online, which can be a challenging endeavor. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week.
This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.